Recently the human population passed the 7 billion mark. When I was in high school I took a class with the alarming title of World Problems. The primary learning tool was a branching diagram we would create as a class – largely via brainstorming and our imaginations – that displayed in graphic detail the causes and consequences of various issues that faced humanity. Population was one of the highlighted issues, and the diagrams were head-splittingly complicated and depressing. I could feel the pressure of 4 million people pressing on my soul and sucking up the planet’s resources.
I have heard it expressed from both the left and the right that some sort of population collapse event is inevitable. The tone of some of these interactions makes it clear that the speaker thinks that would be a good thing. The speaker, of course, always assumes on some level that they themselves and those they care for will not die in the plague, civil disorder or asteroid strike that must be coming soon. For some reason, volcanic eruptions are not in the running. Nor is the collapse of the industrial food production system. I find this attitude completely understandable, but troublesome on a spiritual level. In what way is it appropriate to secretly – or not so secretly – wish for the death of billions of people?
I think we feel this way in part because we cannot imagine how all those people will be fed, and what kind of world we will have in the process. Scary as it is, I believe there is hope for us. This is not just blind faith in the goodness of the Universe. In the course of learning about sustainable food systems, I have come across some remarkable pieces of information.
The first is that mixed use, biodynamic farms produce more food per acre than conventional farms. A lot more. And not just more food, but food that is more nutritious, better for the environment, and humane. When animal inputs are mixed with gardens, the soil fertility increases and plants grow bigger and healthier. Nitrogen inputs become unnecessary, and healthier plants are less susceptable to insects and diseases. And livestock gets to live they way they evolved to; strolling around pastures, eating grass.
Second, with the application of swale agriculture, it is possible to grow crops in drylands where farming is difficult and the soil tends to get contaminated with salt. The short film Greening the Desert Geoff Lawson goes to the middle east and finds a salt contaminated piece of land in the desert and grows food there, even decontaminating the soil, something generally considered to be impossible without massive flushing with fresh water. The Permaculture techniques demonstrated in this video are not a matter of great expense, but of human creativity, observation, and understanding.
Third, while only a small percentage of land on the planet is suitable for farming via conventional methods, there are vast tracks of grassland that could support rotational grazers. Such grazing increases the health of both the land and the animals on it. Well-managed grasslands sequester more carbon than forests, reduce or eliminate erosion, hold more water that conventionally farmed fields, and reduce fire danger. All of these things add up to a better life for the entire planet and her residents.
7 billion people does mean a greater demand of resources, but it also means a greater pool of creativity and ingenuity. In high school I could not have imagined feeling hopeful about the future of humanity’s nearly 5 billion people. But now, at 7 billion, I find myself optimistic.